How does love, honor, courage, and faith sustain a US Air Force pilot for eight years as a prisoner of war? And how does an old, long-unused World War II method of communicating by tapping on a common water pipe offer a lifeline, give strength, boost morale, and build unity among other POWs during their solitary internment?
Bible Gateway interviewed Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris about his book, Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything (Zondervan, 2019).
How did you come to write your book?
Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: I had written a chronicle of my incarceration covering the first two years back in the mid-1970s. It was not intended for publication—just a record for my family to have. My life became so busy with work, study, and family time that I put the chronicle aside. But I did attend many recitals and sports events and had quality time with Louise and the kids. They, in turn, asked for me to finish it many times, but that just never happened.
My daughter, Robin, had become good friends with Sara Berry, and she found out that Sara was a very gifted writer and might be coerced into helping me finish the book. Sara was a godsend. She had many work sessions with Louise and me and poured over many books and other sources to get and present an accurate account for Tap Code. It was Robin’s friendship with Sara and her desire to get a better story of her mother and her dad’s lives during almost eight years of their separation that prompted the writing of the book.
Was it difficult for you to write about one of the worst times in your life?
Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: In retrospect I can recall most of the bad times when I was in the hands of my North Vietnamese captors, but I don’t dwell on those times. I choose to think of wonderful friends I’ve made, the humor and enlightening times we enjoyed while captives, and educational opportunities we were exposed to. I learned about 2,500 words in each language and could converse in French, German, and Spanish, plus advanced math and other subjects.
The most important benefit for me was a renewed and strengthened faith in God. I knew that I would never be alone under any circumstances in my life. Someone cared and I would be able to be with Christ in Heaven someday. Both Louise and I know that my time of incarceration was a net positive in both of our lives.
Describe your role in the military, and how and when you were captured.
Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: I was an officer in the US Air Force, based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. I flew an F-105 fighter-bomber. I was captured on April 4, 1965, when my plane crashed over Vietnam.
What is the tap code, how did you learn it, and how did you teach it to your fellow prisoners?
Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: The tap code is a very simple way to send text messages on a letter-by-letter basis. The message is transmitted using a series of tap sounds.
I had learned the tap code from an instructor in an Air Force escape and evasion school. It was not routinely taught by any of the service schools. When I was captured, I knew the importance of communicating with other POWs, and the first time I was put in a cell with four other POWs, I immediately taught them the tap code. In just a few days we were all put back in solitary confinement and used the tap code successfully.
It took just a few minutes to teach the tap code because it’s so simple. It’s a five-by-five matrix of the alphabet leaving out the letter K. We substituted C for K.
A B C D E
F G H I J
L M N O P
Q R S T U
V W X Y Z
The first taps represented the A F L Q or V row, then short pause, and tap over to the desired letter. Thus the letter B would be Tap pause Tap Tap. The letter P would be Tap Tap Tap, pause, Tap Tap Tap Tap Tap.
How (and why) did the tap code contribute to the morale of the prisoners?
Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: Morale was up when we communicated because it permitted us to be active members of a military organization, gain guidance from whomever was the senior ranking POW in our communication network, defeat our captors’ efforts to split us by telling lies about other POWs. We made new friends. We received news about our squadron mates, our families, and current events—from later shoot-downs. We shared our interrogation info and treatment, which better prepared others. We passed jokes, family info, and got to know not just the man in the next cell, but everyone in the camp.
What was the most challenging part of returning to the USA and re-entering family life after being imprisoned for eight years?
Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: The most challenging thing for me was to pack in all the activities I wanted to pursue in the time available. Family came first, followed by catching up on events of the past eight years, studying in Air War College and concurrently going to Auburn night school to obtain an MBA, and getting to know my three children. I was so driven to catch up, that five or six hours of sleep was enough for me. It took a couple of years for me to lead a less driven existence.
Louise, you had two young children and were pregnant with your third when your husband was captured. How did you find the strength to stand up for yourself?
Louise Harris: When Carlyle “Smitty” Harris and I committed to each other, we weren’t only much in love, but we each knew we were to be together forever. That was my strength.
Our three children were my daily inspiration and the good Lord was my rock. I knew in my heart that Smitty was alive and if he could endure his challenges, I could as well. Taking care of our children was my mission and I could and would do whatever was necessary to do it well.
When I landed in the US after delivering our son, Lyle, six weeks earlier, I was informed by my escort officer that the Secretary of the Air Force had decided I would get $350 of my husband’s pay and the rest would be placed in a 10% savings account for him. Smitty had signed paperwork that I was to have all his pay and allowances and I also had his General Power of Attorney. I talked to the Secretary of the Air Force and we got that straightened out. When I had problems, I knew to talk directly to the decision maker—my grandmother taught me that. Thus, I talked to a Mr. Estes, president of General Motors about a car delivery and to Senator Stennis, chairman of the Armed Services Committee about a VA home loan. Maybe I seemed a bit “cheeky,” but I thought that I was simply doing my job.
As for the positive attitude, it was mainly faith-based. I truly believed Smitty and I would be reunited and it was also a necessity for me to be strong for our children because they reflected my mood. A very good friend in Okinawa told me, “You’ll never be tested beyond your power to endure.” Each time I felt I was at the “edge,” some special “gift” was given: a bit of news of Smitty, a special moment with the children, a letter from him. We were, and are, so blessed!
Louise, what was the first letter you received from Smitty and where is that letter today?
Louise Harris: From the moment I learned Smitty had been shot down, I believed with all my heart that he was alive. But the confirmation came in August of 1965 when the postmaster in Tupelo called me at home and said, “I think I have a letter from your husband in my hand that’s simply addressed, Mrs. Louise Harris, Tupelo, MS.” If you’ll meet me at the back door of the post office, I’ll hand it to you.” I jumped in the car and raced there. I recognized his handwriting immediately. After sharing it with the children, Smitty’s parents, my mother, grandparents, and my sister, I called the Pentagon, who changed Smitty’s status from MIA to “Detained by Hostile Forces.” The letter remains in our possession today.
What is a favorite Bible passage for each of you and why?
Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris: Psalm 23, because we said it often while we were prisoners of war.
Louise Harris: Psalm 61 has been very comforting to me.
Tap Code is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Carlyle Smith “Smitty” Harris is an ex-Vietnam POW, who rose to the rank of Air Force Colonel. He received many decorations during his Air Force career, including two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merits, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts, and the Eagle Award through the Gathering of Eagles Foundation. His tin cup from his days as a POW is now in the Smithsonian. He lives with his wife, Louise, and is surrounded by his large family in Tupelo, Mississippi.
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